Johnson v. Clark, 2006 WL 3780511 (M.D.Fla. Dec 20, 2006)

No surprises.  That, in a nutshell, is probably the single most important ingredient in any successful attorney-client relationship . . . especially so in the litigation context.  Which is why this case is an excellent resource for Florida probate counsel.

Hammering out a settlement agreement is usually considered probate-litigation Nirvana.  But just because the trustee or personal representative signs off on the deal doesn’t mean you’re home free.  If one of the beneficiaries is determined to undermine the deal then all the “what ifs” need to be anticipated and factored into the deal (remember – no surprises!).

So what can you do to ensure the deal sticks?  First of all, you’ll want to get  a court order approving the deal after a hearing where all beneficiaries were given an opportunity to object.  Counsel in this case did this.  So far so good.  But what can you do if a beneficiary starts up a whole new piece of litigation covering the same ground covered by the settlement agreement?  As we all know, you can’t stop someone from suing you, all you can do is mitigate the risk and cost of such actions.

Virtual Representation

Although the virtual-representation concept summarized below provides an effective tool for disposing of litigation by disgruntled beneficiaries in the settlement-agreement context, the cost of having to litigate this issue should have been anticipated as part of  the settlement deal and shifted over to the estate in the form of an indemnification clause (remember – no surprises!).

The doctrine of virtual representation provides that “[a] person who is not a party to an action but who is represented by a party is bound by and entitled to the benefits of a judgment as though he were a party.” Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 41(1). Further, it is well-settled that in cases involving claims by a trustee and individual beneficiaries, a trustee, in his representative capacity, acts on behalf of the trust representing the interests of the trust and its beneficiaries; a beneficiary is therefore bound by a judgment properly obtained by a trustee acting in his representative capacity. See § 737.402(t), Florida Statutes (2006); Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 41(1)(a) (“A person is represented by a party who is the trustee of an estate or interest of which the person is a beneficiary····”). In Florida, the doctrine of virtual representation has been codified [in F.S. 731.303].

Intervenor Status

But what if you happen to be the attorney representing the disgruntled beneficiary?  What kind of options can you open up for this client?  The virtual-representation concept bars your client from undoing a settlement deal entered into by his or her trustee, but what if your client had independent standing in the case?  Well, then it’s a whole new ballgame.  As discussed in the following excerpts from the linked-to opinion, if your client is granted “intervenor status” in the case, presto: independent standing!

Although [Weiss v. Courshon, 618 So.2d 255 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993)] has a similar fact pattern to that presented here, the one glaring and significant difference between the beneficiaries in Weiss and Clark in the present case-the fact that Clark never formally became an intervenor in the probate proceedings-dictates the different result here. While it is true that Clark objected to the Mediation Agreement and even appealed the court’s order approving the settlement, Clark was not an intervenor to the trustee’s claims and neither the Mediation Agreement nor the Order approving it expressly reserved his individual claims. . . . . .

FN6. Although the [Weiss v. Courshon, 618 So.2d 255 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993)] court did not specifically cite to it, Florida law provides that “[a]nyone claiming an interest in pending litigation may at any time be permitted to assert a right by intervention.” Fla. R.Civ.P.1.230. “[T]he general rule [is] that it is too late to apply for intervention after final decree has been entered, though there are cases where in the interest of justice leave to intervene has been granted after final decree.” Wags Transp. Sys., Inc. v. City of Miami Beach, 88 So.2d 751, 752 (Fla.1956) (internal citations omitted) (holding that potential loss of intervenors’ homes satisfied the interest of justice exception). Further, the Virtual Representation Statute represents a policy decision by the Florida legislature, which weighs heavily against the possibility that facts of this case would warrant a late grant of intervenor status, even if Clark had actually requested such status. See id.

The “Standard” General Release

Say it’s 11 PM on a Friday night and you’ve been negotiating a settlement deal for the last 18 hours, you’ve worked through the all the economics of the deal and someone says “how about we just agree to the ‘standard’ general release?”  Freeze, because that last statement is nonsense.  Do yourself and everyone else involved a favor and insist on the parties agreeing to the explicit text of the release.  If anyone blows a gasket at this latest middle-of-the-night example of your intransigence, you may want to share this last bit of guidance from the linked-to opinion:

The Florida Supreme Court has recognized that “there are no ‘standard’ general releases; all are unique. The fact that a proposed release is described as being ‘general’ is virtually meaningless. [I]t would be essential to know what is being released, who is being released, and any conditions or terms of the release.” Swartzel v. Publix Super Markets, Inc., 882 So.2d 449, 453 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). In other words, the covenant to execute “mutual general releases” as set forth in the Mediation Agreement essentially had no meaning until the actual general releases were executed . . .